October 17, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The food box programs in Northeast Oregon are providing a safety net for increasing numbers of people who find their salaries arent sufficient to keep up with the rising costs of utilities and other needs.

Carmen Gentry of Community Connection reports that from July through September the food box program served 838 households and 1,963 people. During the same period last year, 796 households with 1,843 residents sought help.

The increase in requests for food came as the August unemployment for Union County was 4.1 percent, the lowest in Northeast Oregon and lower than the states rate of 6 percent. The average salary in Union County was $24,148.

But with electric costs rising by 30 percent and home heating costs up from last year, families find their resources stretched further and further. Gentry said she is especially concerned about peoples ability to pay heating costs and buy food during the winter.

One woman was paying as much as $150 a month for heat last year, she said.

Jobs in Northeast Oregon traditionally pay lower salaries than comparable jobs elsewhere in the state. Gentry has calculated that a low-income family, earning less than $1,200 a month, can afford to pay no more than $299 a month for rent, but finding an apartment or house for that amount is next to impossible. The fair market rent in Northeast Oregon has been estimated at $484 per month.

National statistics show that a record number of working poor families paid more than half their income for housing or were living in substandard housing, she said.

Across the state, families are facing similar stresses. The Oregon Food Bank that distributes staples and other foods to programs throughout the state has reported that the number of food boxes distributed statewide during the 2000-01 fiscal year exceeded 530,000, 10 percent higher than the previous year. State records show that 40 percent of those who receive food are children and one out of every six Oregonians eats from a food box at least once a year.

During 2000-01, the food bank took in 46 million pounds of food and Community Connection collected 356,000 pounds. Since January, Community Connection has taken in 127,000 pounds of food.

The food, given at no cost to people, is distributed to food box programs throughout Union County. The Salvation Army and the Elgin Food Bank give out the most, Gentry said. Other box programs are Neighbor to Neighbor Ministries, Shelter From the Storm and the North Powder Food Bank.

Gentry said that while the downturn in the economy might contribute to the increase in the need for emergency food, it is not the cause.

Housing costs, tax policies, low-wage jobs, food stamp cuts and welfare shifts all contributed to the potential for hunger in good times as well as bad, she said.

A national survey conducted earlier this year found that Oregon has the highest incidence of hunger in the U.S.